Lighten Up

Come away by yourself to an out-of-the-way place and rest awhile. Mk 6:31

The last few months have been rather intense. Short-handed at work, deadlines for work and school, juggling three classes, and taking on an ever-deepening role as caretaker for my mom – it was all piling up to overwhelming levels of stress and anxiety. Six days away on Cape Cod was a desperately needed break. Me, being me, packed light…well sort of. I brought my usual beachwear of ragged jeans and ancient hoodies, wool socks and boots but I also brought three books, my laptop, my bible, my journals (there’s two – don’t ask why) and some reading material from my pastor. Somehow, I had it in my head that although I was going away to rest and take time alone to deepen my connection with God, ponder the questions of my Lent, and to ground myself again, I was also going to write a paper on Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith and still have time to read two books and walk the beaches. Yeah – I needed a reality check and bad.

With the fourth nor’easter in three weeks coming up the coast, I was up and on the road to the Cape well before dawn. That first night, I was exhausted from the drive and just life in general. I had unpacked and settled into pajamas, snuggled up with a blanket and my phone on the couch to leisurely scroll through social media and blink… BLINK… PITCH BLACK. Yup, the lights went out. I swear to you in that moment I heard God laugh. It was the kind of laugh you get from an old friend who has just pulled off an awesome prank. After the initial shock, I started to giggle at the absolute absurdity of driving nearly four hours only to sit in the dark while the lights – and the heat – were still on back home. After about ten minutes, I shrugged and decided an early bedtime wasn’t such a bad thing. I used my phone for a flashlight and turned down the bed. No sooner did I slide under the covers than the lights came back on. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

The next day was gray with rain, sleet, snow, and lots of wind. So while the water heated for my tea, I dragged a big chair from the living room into the bedroom. I positioned it to face the bedroom chair, planning to put my feet up and enjoy a lovely day of staring out the sliding glass doors, watching the wind stir up the water, and listening to the rain and sleet ticking off the windows. I got my tea, gathered up my journals, my bible, and my pen and as I settled myself into that big chair, it suddenly hit me that I had just walked into my morning prayer time the same way I would walk into a classroom. I was mentally in full-blown honor student mode, ready to make good use of my time and accomplish something. I had the first completely unscheduled morning I’ve had in over a year and instead of putting my feet up and soaking up the silence, I was ready to make intelligent observations and take copious notes.

And right there in that instant the full weight of everything I’d been carrying for the last six months came crashing down. All the expectations I had shouldered, some put on me and some I’d put on myself, were suddenly way more than I could carry. Add to that all the guilt I was carrying for not being able to do more than I’m already doing. And on top of all of that, I had planned to go to confession the night before I left and didn’t go because, well – life happened. I crumbled and over the rest of the morning, I cried six months worth of pent-up tears while God picked through the load of stuff I’d been carrying. God patiently sorted through it all.  This isn’t yours. This isn’t yours. This is yours. Where did this even come from?! Definitely not yours. Don’t need this. Put that down. No! Don’t pick it up again! Yes, that’s yours but it’s heavy. Let me help you with that one. Oh sweetheart, please don’t do this to yourself. You aren’t meant to carry the whole world on your shoulders. That’s my job. 

I spent the rest of that day watching the wind move over the water, listening to the rain and sleet tick off the windows. This was time to let God do God’s thing, some of which consisted of telling me to lighten up and let go and some of which – no, actually a lot of which – I don’t even understand yet. Two of my books, my paper, and my laptop sat mostly untouched for the rest of my time on the Cape. I read one book, slowly, soaking in it.

I came home in the middle of Holy Week and so much needed to be done at home. It would have been so easy to pick up where I’d left off, carrying things not meant for me. But somewhere in the middle of the Holy Thursday liturgy, as the community prayed for wisdom, courage, and strength, I remembered to let go. I remembered that it’s okay to be small, to be weak, to be vulnerable – in other words, to be human in need of a Savior.

During my days on the Cape, I had wandered my favorite beaches. God Himself had washed my feet in the cold Atlantic ocean that I love so dearly under a sky that was my favorite shade of blue. The Spirit moved in the wild March winds and carried the reminder of my baptism in sleet and snow blown in off the waves. In all the world, there is no finer cathedral to be found than this. But just in case I’d started to forget any of it, as I left the Easter Vigil, the moon was rising over the church, a stiff March wind was blowing, and I could hear the waves crashing on the beach nearby. And in that sound there was a voice that said, Lighten up kid, I love you.

Let Go

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So what happens when you put a perfectionist with no artistic talent whatsoever in a painting studio? Eye twitches. Eye twitches happen. And clenching of the jaw and a death grip on the paintbrush. But it’s okay because I’m in a private party with some of my longtime Catholic grammar school friends and we’re all hopeless perfectionists. We’ll leave the connection between Catholic grammar school and perfectionist tendencies for another post. For now, there’s food and there’s mimosas. There’s music from our younger days. It’s all good. Except I can’t paint creatively. I can paint a room, including the trim, and it will be gorgeous. But a beach? At sunset? With palm trees?

Ha ha ha! No.

For the next couple of hours, I reminded myself with every third stroke of the paintbrush to lighten up and let go. In the end, we all had a great time. We laughed ourselves silly and I came home with some great memories of friends that I love dearly and a painting of a beach at sunset – or the beginning of the apocalypse – with what could be either a sickly palm tree or a dead tarantula on it. But whatever, it’s hanging in my kitchen, conveniently covering the calendar, and, oddly enough, I’m rather fond of my apocalyptic tarantula.

I suppose my fondness for this painting has less to do with what it looks like and a lot more to do with what went into it. And I suppose maybe that applies to a lot of things in my life. I know where I’ve been and I know what it took for me to be where I am. The last few months got way more hectic than I can comfortably handle. So when I caught myself reading American history during what was supposed to be my prayer time at the beach in the morning, I knew something had to give. I need that time with God far more than I need an A in history. Yeah, I actually had to read that sentence out loud a few times until I could say it without my voice shaking.  I will most likely walk away from this summer class without an A, bringing an end to a two-year streak of perfect grades, and I am okay with that because I know what when into it was the best I had to give at this point in time. It seems like perfect timing that the Week of Guided Prayer starts this weekend just as one class ends and the next one starts. It’s the precisely the interruption I need. I’m not feeling like I’m on the most solid of footing, but that’s okay too because when I first attended the Week ten years ago, it was supposed to be a one-shot deal and yet, here I am again. I’ve been on more solid ground and I’ve been on shakier but it doesn’t matter because it’s all holy ground.

So, ultimately, what did my little foray into the arts teach me? That sometimes it’s okay to let go and when I find that things aren’t turning out quite the way I think they should, it’s completely cool – and actually rather helpful – to throw down the paintbrush, jump up and dance the YMCA with three other friends while the rest of the class paints on. Because in the end, it was never about the perfect beach painting. It was about the part of my soul that went into it. And you know, I think that’s pretty much what life is all about in the end. It’s not about what life looks like. It’s about how much soul goes into living it.